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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Ukraine at War: What does grief feel like?


Each time I hear about another Russian military crime, I naively think that the situation cannot get any worse. It always can; apparently, it hits differently when a friend is killed. For me, the grief feels like a heavy fabric thrown all over the body. 

The last time I saw Vadym Berezhnyi in person was in 2021. It was one of the March afternoons that made early spring feel like winter ended only on the calendar. Current members and alumni of international youth-run organization AIESEC gathered in a local office in Dnipro, one of the largest Ukrainian cities, for the election of a new head of the department. The atmosphere in the room, unlike the weather outside, was invitingly warm. 

Vadym was a part of AIESEC in Kharkiv. Just like Dnipro, it is a rapidly developing city and a dream destination for many. At least it used to be, before Russia launched the full-scale war against Ukraine. Since Feb. 24, Kharkiv has been one of the main Russian targets. The phrase “I’m from Kharkiv” now tends to be followed by heavy sighs and inquiries about the well-being of family and friends. 

Six months ago, Vadym wrote on his LinkedIn page “Accepted an offer from a very promising, fast-growing organization,” referring to the decision to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine. On Oct. 11, his friend, Iryna Smirnova, wrote on Instagram that he “died defending Ukraine. He covered his wounded comrades so they could be carried out of the battlefield in the Kharkiv region. He was 22.” 

In Dnipro, I recall my friend Diana walking into the room with Vadym, laughing and eating pastries. “He is so full of life. I had never seen anyone so cheerful,” I thought. “I must get to know him better.”For some reason, I never spoke to him back then. Perhaps I envisioned countless encounters in the future, as we both were AIESEC members and volunteered for partnering divisions. Yet in big cities, the intention to meet someone again often dissolves, blending with jobs, studies and running errands.

After meeting in March, Vadym and I briefly talked only a few times again during AIESEC conferences. Eventually, we both became AIESEC alumni. In 2021, I was working on my application to Tufts. Now I am studying at my dream school. Meanwhile, Vadym is buried in a Kharkiv cemetery.

There is the meme “What is your superpower? — I’m Ukrainian.” Sometimes when I leave the fabric of grief in the closet in my dorm room to be able to smile when studying with friends or running club practices as if the people I love in Ukraine are not at risk of being killed at any moment; I relate to it a little bit too much. We all do.